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Temporary foreign workers remove pruned limbs and branches from apple trees at Schuyler Farms near Simcoe, Ont., on June 12, 2020.Fred Lum/the Globe and Mail

The federal government plans to grant permanent residency to more than 90,000 temporary foreign workers and graduated international students as part of its goal to admit 401,000 immigrants this year.

The new measures announced on Wednesday will allow 20,000 temporary foreign workers in health care, 30,000 workers in other occupations deemed essential and 40,000 international students who have graduated from a university or college to apply to become permanent residents. There will be separate, dedicated spaces for French-speaking or bilingual applicants residing outside Quebec.

“We are committed to providing an opportunity for those who are already here in Canada by recognizing their contribution during the pandemic and giving them a path to stay,” Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino said in an interview.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada will accept applications from May 6 to Nov. 5, or until the limit is reached.

Any foreign resident who graduated from a Canadian university or college within the past four years will be able to apply. Temporary foreign workers in 40 occupations related to health care will qualify. That includes doctors and nurses, but also home support workers, housekeepers and “other assisting occupations in support of health services,” a government description of the program says.

The 95 essential occupations outside health care include work in grocery stores, construction, transportation – such as bus, taxi, courier and delivery drivers – “harvesting labourers” and other trades and services deemed essential.

Each successful applicant could have a multiplier effect, since new permanent residents can apply to have relatives admitted as family-class immigrants, provided they comply with testing and quarantine measures upon arrival.

Expanding the number of new Canadians admitted each year has been an ambition of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government, which increased the annual intake of permanent residents from 241,000 in 2015 to 341,000 in 2019.

The first COVID-19 lockdown in March, 2020, forced all non-essential workers who were not laid off to work from home. But it quickly became apparent that essential workers included not only doctors and police, but personal support workers at long-term care facilities, cashiers at grocery stores, delivery truck drivers and other jobs often filled by migrant workers.

Pandemic restrictions closed the borders, and the country took in only 184,000 of last year’s 341,000 goal for new permanent residents. To make up the shortfall, Ottawa set targets of 401,000 new permanent residents this year, 411,000 in 2022 and 421,000 in 2023.

With borders still closed, the largest available pool of potential permanent residents consists of students, temporary foreign workers and asylum seekers already in the country. About one million to 1.5 million people in Canada fall into those categories.

Mr. Mendicino was cautiously optimistic that Canada could meet its target this year from members of that group, and said further initiatives might be coming to ensure it.

Business groups welcomed the announcement, saying that immigrants are needed for pandemic recovery. Goldy Hyder, president and chief executive officer of the Business Council of Canada, said the plan will “strengthen Canada’s economy when we need it most.”

“Immigrants have long played a critical role in supporting Canadians’ high standard of living and building vibrant communities. They fill labour market shortages, offset our aging population and broaden the tax base, thereby helping fund social and public services,” Mr. Hyder said.

Leah Nord, senior director of Workforce Strategies & Inclusive Growth at the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, also called the announcement an important step toward the “inclusive pandemic recovery we need.”

However, Migrant Rights Network said in a statement that too many are excluded. It said the announcement opens up a short-term window for those who can meet restrictive criteria, while thousands continue to be exploited.

Syed Hussan, executive director of Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, said “without fundamental change through granting full and permanent immigration status for all, it will simply not be enough.”

Conservative immigration critic Jasraj Singh Hallan said his party has long called for measures to allow workers and skilled students to stay in Canada. He added that the Liberal government has failed to address current backlogs in the immigration system, and that he worries applicants to this program could face delays.

“Conservatives are calling on the Liberal government to produce a plan that provides certainty and clarity for those who hope to make Canada their home,” he said.

NDP immigration critic Jenny Kwan said the program should not exclude those who lost employment during the pandemic or individuals without status.

“It reinforces the stigma and the exploitation that they face,” she said. “It is wrong to have two classes of migrants. Canada needs a just and fair program that recognizes and values the contributions of all migrants and undocumented workers.”

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